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7.2 Million Acres of Wetlands and Fragile Land Go Under the Plow

Analysis reveals hotspots for conversion are hotspots for crop insurance payouts
Contact: 
(202) 667-6982
ssciammacco@ewg.org
For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Washington, D.C. – A new analysis released by Environmental Working Group shows that 1.9 million acres, or near 3,000 square miles of wetlands and nearby habitat, went under the plow in the United States between 2008 and 2012.

EWG’s researchers found that over the same time period, 5.3 million acres, or 8,300 square miles of highly erodible land – mostly fragile grassland – was also plowed up to grow row crops.

Using modern mapping and geospatial technologies, researchers documented that the most dramatic loss of wetlands occurred in three states – South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota – the core of the critically important Prairie Pothole Region. Exploitation of highly erodible land is more widespread, with 10 states – Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Montana, North Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska – accounting for 57 percent of all the highly erodible land converted to cropland.

The new analysis, titled, “Going, Going, Gone!”, is a follow-up to EWG’s widely cited Plowed Under report, released in 2012, which found that over the same four years, 23.6 million acres of grasslands, wetlands and shrublands had been converted to row crops.

“By taking a closer look at the data we were able to reveal with unprecedented precision the ‘hotspots’ where conversion of large blocks of fragile land to row crops is most extensive,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “What’s most troubling is the correlation between these areas and the counties with the highest average crop insurance payouts.”

For an interactive map showing county-by-county wetlands and wetland buffer conversion rates, click here.

For an interactive map showing county-by-county highly erodible land conversion rates, click here.

In particular, the county-by-county mapping analysis shows:

  • In the 71 counties that lost more than 5,000 acres of wetlands and wetland buffers, the average crop insurance payout was $10.1 million – more than four times the $2.3 million average across all 3,109 U.S. counties..
  • The average crop insurance payout in the 235 counties that were hotspots for conversion of highly erodible land was $5.8 million – two and a half times the national average.
  • In the 12 counties that were hotspots for both wetland and highly erodible land conversion, the average payout was $7.5 million – three times the national average.
  • The total payout in the 294 counties with the highest rates of conversion of wetlands or highly erodible land was an astounding $8.3 billion.

“The data strongly suggest that over-subsidized crop insurance policies are greasing the wheels of conversion to row crops,” said Cox. “The government is picking up too much of the risk of plowing up and planting fragile land, all at a cost of billions of dollars to taxpayers and untold environmental degradation.”

Taxpayers pay, on average, 60 percent of crop insurance premiums, and in some cases the entire cost. However, premium subsidies are not subject to the same conservation requirements that apply to other farm programs.

The pending Senate-passed version of the farm bill would ensure that farmers take basic steps to protect land in exchange for receiving taxpayer-funded crop insurance subsidies and reduce those subsidies for landowners who plow up native prairie and grassland; the House version would not.

The EWG report also shows just how effective this simple conservation quid pro quo would be in slowing down wetland conversion and protecting millions of acres of fragile land.

It concludes, “Strengthening the conservation compact is the single most important action Congress could take to halt the environmental disaster taking place as millions of acres of environmentally sensitive land go under the plow.”

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